Maryland has officially become the first state in the U.S. to ban employers from asking job applicants to surrender their user names and passwords for social media accounts, just weeks after two U.S. senators called for a federal investigation of the practice, calling it an invasion of privacy.

Under the new bill, employers in both the public and private sectors will be prohibited from requesting or requiring current employees or job applicants to provide user names and passwords for social media sites like Facebook.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland said it is the “nation's first bill” that bans the practice.

“Along with every other new law, we need to carefully weigh the pros and cons before we can make a commitment one way or another,” said Maryland’s Chief Innovation Officer Bryan Sivak in an emailed statement. “As always, we welcome comments from all Maryland citizens.”

Both the state House and Senate passed the bill last week after a much publicized incident in Maryland shed light on the issue. Last year, an employee from the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services took a voluntary leave from his position and upon reapplying, was asked for his Facebook user name and password before he could work again for the department, according to Melissa Goemann, the legislative director of the ACLU of Maryland.

“As the story’s gotten more national attention, these situations of other employers throughout the country that are doing this has really come to the surface,” Goemann said. “So I think we’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

And although the practice is rarely seen in the public sector, similar incidents had occurred prior to Maryland’s debacle. In 2009, Bozeman, Mont., city officials came under fire for asking job applicants to provide the city with a list of their social networking log-on credentials. The city terminated the practice in 2009 following public outcry over the policy.

But last month, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal investigation to look into the practice of employers requiring job applicants to disclose their user names and passwords, claiming the practice was an invasion of privacy.

Facebook took a stance on the practice by releasing a statement in March saying the company would take legal action if it felt the privacy of users’ accounts were infringed. The statement was released by Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan, but was later modified with the release of this statement: “We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” the follow-up from Facebook said. “While we do not have any immediate plans to take legal action against any specific employers, we look forward to engaging with policy makers and other stakeholders, to help better safeguard the privacy of our users.”

Maryland and Facebook are not alone in trying to prevent employers from asking for social media account information. According to Maryland’s ACLU, states like California, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts have already developed legislation that would ban the practice.

Goemann said protecting individuals from employers asking for user names and passwords is akin to protecting them from having their personal phone calls tapped. Both practices would lead to having the same type of private, personal information disclosed. Because legislation exists to prevent phone tapping, Goemann thinks social media privacy should be protected as well.

“So this is just really moving these privacy protections that we already recognize into the digital age.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.